Are your committees truly committees? Are they environments that draw on dynamic discussion and teamwork to resolve tenacious institutional problems? Or are they dominated by a single talker, and undone by the glaze in other members’ eyes as they fidget and not-so-inconspicuously check the time. Are they vibrant fonts of creativity or cesspools of politics, gossip and dissent-for-its-own-sake? Most importantly, are they generating buy-in for new initiatives, or are they simply an academic ritual — a proforma waste of time?
As blogger Jamie Notter writes, “Here’s the problem with committees: they exist.”
If that were truly the case, educational institutions would put a stop to the practice. Despite their bad reputation, committees have potential for generating fruitful dialogue about the academic community, which in-turn promotes collaboration and sparks enthusiasm for critical administrative initiatives.
The University of Minnesota compiled a list of common committee traps. Among them: Failing to maintain purpose, failing to select a genuinely diverse group of people, and back-office decisions that shock those who thought they, too, had a say in outcomes. Beyond avoiding snares like these, here are five proven steps you can take ensure your committees are informative and productive:
1. Ask real questions.
That sounds obvious, but it’s not always easy. Often when we pose open-ended questions, we already have a preferred answer in mind. People pick up on that. Faux questions result in people feeling like they’re being led in one direction or another. Many try to give you the “right” or “wrong” answer, rather than a new, creative response. Before your committee meets, check your intentions and make a list of open-ended questions for which you truly do not have an answer. You’re a leader, not a dictator. If your questions arise from genuine curiosity, you will be much more inclined to listen with an open mind.
2. Don’t be afraid to put someone on the spot.
Directly asking quieter members for a response to question is the best way to ensure a single show-off doesn’t dominate discussions. It invites more views, and typically establishes a more democratic atmosphere for the collective. Sometimes people freeze when they’re posed a difficult question. That’s hard on everyone in the room, especially the shy ones. The best way to avoid embarrassing someone is to simply say, “No worries, I’ll come back to you.” Then you return to him or her when you notice they’re composed and ready to speak.
3. Welcome dissent.
Inviting disagreement ensures people don’t feel compelled to disagree for its own sake. Someone who feels muzzled — especially an educator accustomed to lively debate — is far more likely to resort to belligerence and engage in divisive gossip later.
4. Time discussions.
A watch is a key discussion tool. Set explicit limits for each question. Depending on how long your meeting is, the time-frame for discussing particular issues could be as long as 15 minutes or as short as two. When people know time is short, they’re much more engaged. Timing topics cuts down on the boredom over-long talkers induce and allows you to make more productive use of your time. It activates members’ minds and leaves them feeling accomplished when the meeting is done.
5. Include time for writing.
This go-to pedagogical tool for many teachers gives people space to sort their ideas before they speak up. Allow two or three minutes for people to write down a response or an idea before asking them to contribute verbally. The ideas you hear will be far more coherent and your quietest committee members will feel more confident about sharing.